Major Spitty

The life of Billericay's millionaire benefactor

Early life and the tragic death of his mother.

Thomas Jenner Spitty, who was to become Captain and later Major of the Essex rifles, Justice of the Peace, and Deputy Lieutenant of Essex, was born at Hutton House on 6th January 1812.

He was related through his mother and maternal grandmother, to the rich and powerful Tyrrell family.

His paternal grandfather (also named Thomas!) was born in 1759, and had originally lived at Sadlers Farm Bowers Gifford, (one of several properties eventually inherited by the Major), and who died in 1823 of whom there is a memorial at Great Burstead church.

His paternal grandmother was Elizabeth Innott, who was born in 1763 at Shoreham in Sussex, and who died in 1844 and there is a memorial to her in the church at Horndon-on-the-hill.

His father (who again was also named Thomas!) lived at Hutton House.

His mother was Mary Jenner, the daughter of the Revd John Jenner vicar of Great Burtstead, she died in 1813 aged only 28, when the Major was only a year old Infant. Her last will took the form of a touching letter to her husband:-

“My dearest Thomas, you are to become the only parent to a helpless dear little innocent boy little more than a twelve month, old deprived of the full solicitudes of a mother at an age when he most stands in need of her, and requires the tender care of one to rear him. Let one entreat you to be very particular in the choice of the person you select to take charge of him, and do not have him far distant from you, that you may have an opportunity of seeing that he receives every attention that his tender age requires.”

As her will was not legally witnessed, it was verified by her uncle, Sir John Tyrell, Baronet of Boreham House. He will feature again in the story a little later on.

As requested in her will there is a memorial to her in Great Burstead Church.

His father re-married a widow, Charlotte Finch on 21st June 1822, and a half sister, Mary was born later.

The insane Reverend, the Scarborough water, and the court case.

His maternal grandfather, the Revd John Jenner had died in 1828, but his will was contested on behalf of Major Spitty, who was 18 years old and still a legal minor, and the Revd Jenner’s “lunatic” son John Tyrell Jenner, in a costly year long court case 1829-30.

It was alleged that the Revd was insane when he dis-inherited his “lunatic” son, and the decendants of his deceased daughter (inc Major Spitty) in favour of a non blood relation Sir John Tyrell, Baronet, his brother in law. This is the same John Tyrell who verified the will of the Majors late mother.

Extracts from the Times reports on the case:-

“Dr. Lushington and Dr. Dodson, for the committee and guardians of the next of kin, contended that this was a case of a person alleged to be of unsound mind, who, at the age of 82, had by a will executed in a stationer’s shop, in the presence of the party whom it favoured, disinherited his only son, and the children of his sister, in favour of a person not related by blood.”

“The counsel in behalf of the son and grand-sons of the deceased argued at very considerable length, that the will was the result of a fraudulent conspiracy between Sir John Tyrell and Jane Bailes, the deceased’s housekeeper; they imputed to the former falsehood and perjury; and they contended, that the imbecility and “senile delirium” of the deceased were amply demonstrated by the acts he was proved to have been guilty of, namely – habitual indelicacy of conversation, absurd notions of his own importance and qualifications, improper language from the pulpit, addiction to gin, which he named “Scarborough water,” dancing in the streets, and familiarity with low characters.”

Despite these arguments, the alleged fraudulent will was accepted by the court, and the Revd Jenners property passed to Sir John Tyrell Baronet, who himself died 2 years later.

Justice of the peace, marriage, tragedy & good works.

Perhaps the protracted legal case is what drew the Major to becoming a magistrate, he qualified as a Justice of the Peace in 1839, and went on to become the most senior JP in the county.

He married Mary Ann Carter in Oct 1863, at Billericay, she was 30 years old, he was 51!

In 1864, Major Spitty, along with friends and business colleagues, founded the Billericay Recreational Rooms Foundation, now known as the Billericay Reading Rooms `to educate the working classes’ and `to aid the growth and improvement of the common man’. The current building replaced the original in 1886.

It was announced in The Essex Standard that on 4th June 1866, twins; a son and a daughter, had been born at Billericay to Mary, the wife of Major Spitty. However, I have found no subsequent mention of them, so I must assume that they died soon thereafter. The couple had no surviving children.

As deputy Lord Lieutenant of Essex, he is known to have dined with Her Majesty Queen Victoria.

In 1878, he served as chairman of the Great Burstead school board, and oversaw the building and opening of the first board school.

For the year of 1881, he was appointed as High Sheriff of Essex.

Wealth and propery, death and will.

The Major was a very wealthy man, who owned a large number of properties and farmland across the south of Essex, and it is estimated that towards the end of his life, his annual income from rents alone was approx £2500, which is equivalent to around £230,000 at todays values, and there was further income from crops, livestock sales and property transactions and investments, and his paid duties.

A twice yearly rent review was held at the Sun Inn Billericay, followed by a full dinner for his tenants, he regularly froze, or rebated rents for his tenants dependent upon the income they had generated.

Major Spitty died on 26th January 1898 after a year long illness, he left an estate valued at £48,487-8s-2d, which in 1898 was a sizeable fortune, and is probably equivalent to more than £4 Million today. The estate included properties, farmland and houses in Billericay, Buttsbury, Mountnessing, Ingatestone, Vange, Bowers Gifford, Benfleet, Canvey, and elsewhere.

At his request, he was buried in the church yard at Great Burstead, close to the grave of his mother, with little ceremony, a handsome marble plaque was installed in Great Burstead church, and in addition, there is a simple engraved copper memorial plaque in Billericay church.

Major Spitty’s rather lenghy will with 6 codicils, is held at the Essex records office, here are some extracts:-

“I Thomas Jenner Spitty of Billericay in the County of Essex Esquire formerly a Major in the Essex Rifles Regiment of Militia hereby revoke all former Wills made by me and declare this to be my last Will.”

“I desire to be buried at the Parish Church of Great Burstead in Essex where my mother was buried and that the conduct of my funeral I leave to the entire discretion of my executors only desiring that anything savoring of parade or display may be avoided And my executors may in their like discretion either give or not give mourning to all or any of my servants.”

“I confirm the settlement made on my marriage with my wife Mary Ann Spitty.”

“I bequeath to my said wife the sum of five hundred pounds to be paid to her within one calendar month after my death and I bequeath to her all the china glass linen and woollen articles wines liquors and consumable stores and provisions which at my death shall be in or about or belonging to or appropriated for my dwelling house and stables at Billericay aforesaid and all her jewellery and paraphernalia and all the plate and plated articles bought by her since our marriage and all my private carriages and carriage horses and harness used in connection and all my wearing apparel rings pins and other articles of jewellery and ornaments of the person (but not including my watch and appendages hereinafter specifically bequeathed).”

“I bequeath to George Low and Samuel Bettis if in my service at the time of my death a legacy of two hundred pounds apiece and to John Crush and Arthur Crush and Mrs Crush their mother if in my service at the time of my death a legacy of fifty pounds apiece.”

Mrs Spitty died in 1908, and was laid to rest alongside the Major in Great Burstead churchyard, her name was added to his memorial plaque inside Great Burstead church. 

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